In the middle of some weeks and months of gloom—sad songs, sad memories, sad circumstances with my mother—happiness occurs too. My students and I read Dickens’ Great Expectations and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My daughter skips down the sidewalk on her way to school. A volunteer at church wrangles teachers for a middle school class. I organize the twenty-fourth draft of my fantasy baseball league. I see Zootopia three, no wait, four times with my daughter. A strong wind blows. I get texts from absent friends sharing their joys and achievements. The cats jump into bed when I head in for sleep.
I consider myself to be a happy person. Many different things inspire feelings of happiness in me. What kinds of things? Watching my daughter skip down the sidewalk to school, of course. One of my cats leaping onto a windowsill to be fed there. Indian food, well, good Indian food. The grooves of a record. Garamond font. Holding hands with a person that I love. Legos. A light covering of snow on a mountain path in summertime. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Shooting pool with friends. Watching a baseball game in Baltimore with friends. Having dinner with friends anywhere (even at Wendy’s). Kissing a woman that I love. Again and again. Fountain pens. Warm sand at the beach. Otters. Danish modern furniture. Arts and Crafts style houses. Farms. Wind strong enough that I can lean into it. Any wind. Fourteen-inch narrow ruled yellow legal pads. Visiting my nieces. Driving along the Maine coast. Tarot cards. Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blue. Sails. Art museums. Cleanly swept streets in a city where the buildings tower high. Acrobats.
I could go on. Seriously. Do some of these happinesses outshine others? Certainly. Do I turn any away when they present themselves? No, not if I can help it. Yet, I cannot find a thread to bind all these things together, and many of them contradict each other. Some share nothing other than the fact that they exist in the world and that they make me feel happy. It’s almost as if the only qualification I have is mere existence, but that is not true. I could make a list of what I avoid; it would be a long list. However, it would never come close to eclipsing the other side.
I once facetiously proposed writing a travel book called, Good Food is Everywhere. I was traveling to the Oakland Coliseum with my friend Dean, and he mentioned a place to eat— god knows what. Everywhere we traveled, we found good food. I said, “There is good food everywhere”—the kind of panglossian statement that belied our experiences in the world. We had both been bounced around romantically; our parents had faced significant health challenges. Life held no guarantees. Nonetheless, somewhere, everywhere, someone was making something genuinely delicious to eat. Happiness, even in this limited and simple form, was available. All one had to do was find it.
And, to be clear, let me distinguish between happiness and what? goodness? While doing the right thing—being just, striving to be good, or, as Rilke wrote: “praising this world”—is my goal, I have never expected that behavior to provide happiness. The sunnum bonum gives life its meaning and purpose, but it also engenders struggle.
In the Ninth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke exhorts:
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth, and despite that,
still is able to praise.
The struggle is between the Things, and our praise, and the “imageless act.” I know what a Thing is, but struggle trying to nail down what an imageless act might be. Let me propose the following.
I do an exercise with my students in which I pick up some thing on my desk—a stapler, for instance—and ask them to chart its existence before it came to rest on my desk. We consider each human hand that “touched’ it, and if it interacted with any other Thing (was transported, boxed, or shelved in a store or warehouse), we then have to go through the same process with each the things involved with it as it made its way to us. And so on. The result is not an iceberg so much as a galaxy of connections; the web becomes nearly impenetrable, nearly limitless. I think that this may be the “business” that Rilke points to—a series of acts and actors who disappear, become party to that “imageless act,” part of a supply chain that exists only to invisibly deliver a stapler. When we use the stapler without an understanding of the vast cloud of connections—of the benefits and costs borne by that cloud, those people, those Things—we are party to that business and expand its limits.
Cutting through that business is a struggle. But within the business, what can we find? A thousand hands—more—and all these things: a lathe, a cam shaft, a table, a ship’s propeller blade, a rivet, a mallet. Each one sings out for recognition, for praise. Every hand, every foot, every heart, and every thing. Imagine knowing that all your acts would be held up for praise, and to know that your single cause for being was to praise. The tongue is freed, the heart endures. And the world becomes. Again.